by Simon Rich
Random House, 240 pages, $23
Simon Rich has it all: He’s very funny (in The New Yorker, writer for “Saturday Night Live”), fairly smart (though he went to Harvard, not Yale) and eternally youthful. He successfully completed a two-book deal from Random House, which he signed before he even left college — doing well enough that the publisher asked him to write a novel. Which he has done. And done pretty well.
His previous two books, “Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations” and “Free-Range Chickens,” were slim collections of observations from unusual perspectives: What must a fourth-grader think when all the math he knows is rendered obsolete after calculators are given out? What are computer chips thinking when they are trying to defeat chess grandmasters? What would happen if, like roller coasters, other businesses mounted cameras at the most intense part of their experience?
What distinguished Rich’s books from less worthwhile books of that ilk was their consistency. The level of observation rarely, if ever, dipped below the acute; the economical, sometimes downright sparse, style meant that even commonplace observations were worth reading. (In the piece, “Frogs,” the first line is: “Hey, can I ask you something? Why do human children dissect us?”)And he captured the absurdity of everyday life as seen from either end of the spectrum of power: God on the one hand, kids and animals on the other. But these exercises were no proof that Rich could write a novel.
Despite blurbs promising hilarity, from Judd Apatow and Gary Shteyngart, along with the strange suggestion by A.J. Jacobs that this is “one of the funniest books about high schoolers since ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’” “Elliot Allagash” is more dark and absurd than hilarious.
Seymour Herson is a Jewish boy looking back at the past five years of school, in which he formed an unholy alliance with Elliot Allagash. The latter is a Machiavellian scion of a family that made money by accidentally inventing paper:
They owned wallpaper and Kleenex, magazines and newspapers, cards and checks and stamps.They even owned money itself.
Seymour attends Glendale (an alternate form of Dalton, which Rich attended) and, until he befriends Allagash, has no redeeming characteristics, in fact few characteristics at all, save for ubiquitous victimhood. Allagash takes it as a challenge to make this nobody the biggest somebody at the school. It spoils little to note that his machinations are devious and successful.
The plot is a little dependent on set pieces, and some of the transitions through time are clunky, but the timing is neat and the tone is unremittingly offbeat. The characters are too much of a caricature to have psychological heft but are not, in the end, quite funny enough to move beyond the merely strange.
Novelist Rich, son of New York Times editorialist Frank Rich, made his own name from a comedy of adultly articulated childhood. In this novel, he moves to “Herson” from “his son,” to adulthood from childhood and to a smoothly executed novel from the piecemeal jokes of the Harvard Lampoon. He might even become as good at it as Apatow claims, once he gets some practice.
Dan Friedman is the arts and culture editor at the Forward.